Wing shape is a key component to making airplane fly

December 12, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

When Wilbur and Orville Wright's flying machine lifted off the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., 100 years ago, history was made.

The story of the airplane's Dec. 17, 1903, birth is a familiar one.

But what set the Wright brothers' machine apart from all the balloons and gliders that had gone before?

Their flyer had steering controls and an engine.

This pair of bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, had solved the mystery of flight.

Next week, thousands of people will flock to The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina for a centennial celebration.

And what a celebration it should be. Can you imagine what our lives would be like without airplanes?

(Um, those Christmas presents you have yet to order? They wouldn't arrive on time.)

Children seem particularly drawn to the wonder of flight. I love to watch a child trace an airplane's path across the sky.


Many children are fascinated with paper airplanes. Some models soar through the air. Others dive and crash.

That's when parents are asked questions such as "How do airplanes fly?"

The wings are a key component. They are curved on top and flat on the bottom.

"Wings are shaped so that the air on the top of the wing moves more quickly than the air on the bottom of the wing," explains Jason Powell, assistant professor of chemistry and physics at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va. "The air on top pushes with less force than the air on the bottom, so the wing gets lifted up by the air."

This uneven air pressure creates a force called lift, which allows an aircraft to fly.

"Lift is basically air pressure put to good use," Powell says.

You can illustrate lift with fluids, too.

Pull liquid into a straw and block the top end of the straw.

"The liquid stays in the straw due to a combination of surface tension and the air pressure- air pushes the liquid up into the tube," Powell says.

If you've ever held your hand out the window of a moving car, you've experienced the sensation of lift, Powell says.

When you cup your hand, you feel the air lifting your hand up. If you tilt your hand forward, you can feel the air push it down. If you tilt your hand back, you can feel the air push it up.

For safety reasons, don't tell your child to put his hand out the window of a moving car, but the same experiment could be done on a playground merry-go-round, or while skating and sledding.

Be sure to mention that there won't be lift-off, unless your child has an engine-powered sled ... or Rudolph.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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